Children’s health highlighted at D.C. events
By Virginia Guidry
Children’s environmental health research was the focus of the Oct. 29-30 annual meeting of the NIEHS-U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers. NIEHS and EPA staff and center grantees discussed ongoing research at the Washington, D.C., event.
“The children’s centers were established to increase our understanding of children’s unique vulnerability to harmful environmental exposures,” said Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program, in her opening talk. “This research has helped to guide the development of protective measures for children in the United States and around the world.”
NIEHS and EPA have jointly funded 23 children’s centers across the country since 1998. The centers examine the effects of air pollution, metals, pesticides, and other environmental contaminants on children’s health and developmental outcomes. They also provide outreach and education to those concerned about children’s environmental health.
Environmental health across the life span
A common theme among attendees was the need to consider the entire life span when protecting children’s health. They stressed that exposures in early life can set a course for health outcomes later in life — a concept called early programming.
Bradley Peterson, M.D., of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, explained that much of the brain’s structure is established during the prenatal period and early childhood. Exposure to common air pollutants, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, during this time can result in permanent changes to brain structure.
Michael Lu, M.D., from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Health Resources and Services Administration, addressed the cumulative effects of environmental exposures across a lifetime. “If we want to improve children’s health, starting in childhood is not early enough. Even prenatal care is too late to reverse the accumulation of dioxins in maternal body fat, or epigenetic changes that get passed down from parents as a result of early exposures to nutrition, toxic stress, and environmental factors,” Lu said. “So we really need to take a life course approach to children’s health.”
Research that informs health policy
Children’s centers grantees presented new research on topics ranging from obesity, reproductive health, and neurodevelopmental disorders, to air pollution, nutrition, stress, and poverty. Grantees also discussed how to make their research findings useful for the development of health policies.
A suggestion heard frequently from attendees was the need to include environmental health topics in required training for obstetricians, pediatricians, and family practice providers. “Obstetricians aren’t thinking about how exposures in pregnant mothers now are going to affect their children when they’re 10, 30, 40 years old,” said Rosalind Wright, M.D., from Mount Sinai Hospital. “If we’re going to focus on pregnant women, we have to educate obstetricians that environmental factors are important.”
Gregory Diette, M.D., of Johns Hopkins University, encouraged scientists to align their research with the information regulators need to protect public health. “Linking studies so they can be implemented at the policy level is crucial,” he said. “It is not enough to show that ozone is bad — we have to show that ozone at a certain threshold is bad, so regulators can use that information.”
(Virginia Guidry, Ph.D., is a technical writer and public information specialist in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)
NIEHS and EPA brief congressional staff
A packed crowd attended a congressional briefing about children’s environmental health Oct. 28 in Washington, D.C. The offices of North Carolina Reps. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) and G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) hosted the event.
Birnbaum opened the briefing by explaining that NIEHS makes children’s health research a priority, because of the lifelong impacts it can have. She described current initiatives, including the Children’s Health Exposure Analysis Resource (CHEAR). Thomas Burke, Ph.D., Deputy Assistant Administrator of the EPA Office of Research and Development, provided a personal look at the importance of children’s health, based on his prior work as a state health director and his current position as the EPA science advisor.
Three directors from NIEHS-EPA Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers shared the impacts of their research:
- Peterson used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) pictures to show how pesticides and air pollution can alter brain development in children.
- Rob McConnell, M.D., from the University of Southern California, shared growing evidence that air pollution not only worsens, but also causes, asthma.
- Catherine Metayer, M.D., Ph.D., from the University of California, Berkeley, discussed how exposures to chemical mixtures, such as those used when painting, can increase the risk of developing childhood acute lymphocytic leukemia.